Wednesday, August 25, 2010

in the kitchen

I can't say that these last months and years of homebuilding have been the most creative of my kitchen life. Or, maybe to be more accurate, I've been exercising a different kind of creativity. The kind of creativity required to make quick, nutritious, appetizing meals on a budget – with quick being the operative criteria. I've created a little list of go-to meals that keep us fueled and going without boring or abusing our palates too terribly. In future I'll post about these go-to meals.

Today I want to write about the Boy Builder and his kitchen exploits. He hasn't been as limited by overscheduling as his mama and uses cooking time as really fabulous (and tasty!) expression of his creativity. His recent flurry of gastronomic experimentation has also been inspired by a bit of a family addiction to Food Network, now that we're living in a condo with included cable TV.

Waffles are Boy Builder's latest specialty. He found a waffle iron at a yard sale and he uses it at least once a week. His starting recipe is an Alton Brown favorite, but he's experimented a bit with chocolate, blueberries, cinnamon, and other yumminess. His chocolate raspberry waffles topped with vanilla or cherry vanilla ice cream are stellar!

The cupcake trend has not been missed here in our household either. Boy Builder recently made some amazing banana cupcakes with a honey-cinnamon cream cheese butter cream frosting. They were amazing! We used this Martha Stewart recipe as our starting point, but made a few adjustments, especially to the frosting.

The other night I had a load of computer work to do after a full day of work at the building site and I was balking at preparing dinner.

Boy Builder got right to work preparing a feast of his own invention, instructing his Papa as sous chef and it was so delicious and satisfying. The salad he invented was especially clever. Chopped fresh cucumbers donated from a friend's garden (thank you, VanderWekken's!), carrots, defrosted frozen corn, celery, basil, cilantro, a little shredded parmesan, and a dressing of lime juice, olive oil, salt and agave nectar. So, so, so yummy! Served alongside grilled veggies (more donated veggies – thank you, Phillips's!) and lamb-burgers from the grill. Inspired.

Yesterday, amidst another on-slaught of computer work, Boy Builder prepared me a lovely lunch. A grilled cheese sandwich on yummy seedy whole grain bread with a gourmet touch of chopped parsley and cilantro added after the sandwiches were grilled. So, so yummy! And then he prepared a lovely sundae of peach ice cream topped with chopped pink lady apples and toasted chopped almonds. Yummy and pretty!

Today Boy Builder and I worked together on a vegan West African flavored sweet potato, quinoa, vegetable stew (we used this recipe as an inspirational starting place). He's really good with a knife for chopping. Then we had a little fun making some buttermilk whole wheat doughnuts for dessert. We used this Bob's Red Mill recipe as a starting place, but added our own touch of lime zest and vanilla extract for a key-lime pie sort of flavor.

I see my boy learning so much through his cooking. I see him quickly figuring that 3/4 cup flour requires 1/2 cup + 1/4 cup. I see him chopping his sweet potato chunks into 8 equal pieces and explaining the process to me. I see him learning how food grows and which foods are related to each other. I see him appreciating culture and flavor through his experiments. I love that he loves to share his creations with his family and friends. I love the artistry he expresses in his presentations and flavor and texture combinations. I love to see his confidence blooming. And, I love, love, love to eat his yummy creations!

working for a living

Lately, work for clients have been taking a front seat to work on our own house. We're doing our best to keep things moving, but it's a challenge. Despite the challenges with balance, it has been a pretty satisfying couple of weeks.

A home Heliocentric has been working on for the past year or so came to a certain level of completion last week as the builder got things finished for the Park City Area Showcase of Homes which opened August 21.

To ramp things up, I embraced my budding PR skills and sent press releases to all the local news outlets in anticipation of a press conference we held at the home August 19. I got all our marketing materials pulled together and even managed to get shirts embroidered with our logo for our whole team.

There was a good turn-out at the press conference and we got some nice pieces on TV and in the newspaper.

And, my goodness, the opening day of the home show on August 21 was a whirlwind! 337 tickets were turned in that day and there was a steady of stream of visitors, many of whom were particularly interested in the green features of the home we were responsible for. Yay!

More press seems likely to follow and there are still two weekends of the home show and another weekend of the Utah Solar Tour next month. Good times!

So what are all these amazing green features, you ask? Well, this home is really very, very cool (or warm, depending on the season – thanks for the punch line Alyssa!). The main thing is this house is a passive solar house that makes 90%+ of its heating and cooling energy just from sitting there, passively using the sun's energy. The remainder of its energy needs are produced on site using sophisticated solar thermal and solar electric panels, thus making the home a "net zero" energy producer – it produces as much energy as it uses. Here's a list of features:

The Green Guide to the O'Meara Home
1. A 6.9 kW photovoltaic array installed on the barn will be tied to the grid, providing all the power needs for this home and clean power back to the grid to be sold to the neighbors.
2. Before construction began, a site assessment was completed and the home was carefully oriented for passive solar gain. Proper site orientation is critical for a passive home to work properly. As an added bonus, the site orientation and glazing design allowed for fantastic views!
3. Super-insulated and limited thermal break Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) were used to construct the walls and roof of the home.
4. For passive solar designs to work, air infiltration must be tightly controlled. The building was air-sealed at all potential air penetrations and meets the PassivHaus Institute’s maximum requirement of 0.6 air changes at 50 pascals of air pressure.
5. Glass is a critical component of any passive solar home. There must be a balance of solar gain and high insulation to gather and retain solar resources. The 4-pane windows and glazed doors in this home were manufactured by Serious Windows, using a custom high solar gain glass designed by Heliocentric. The fiberglass frames are in-filled with foam insulation. The result is that the windows have an average insulating value of about R-12.
6. In a unique application designed by Heliocentrirc, Phase change wax was pumped into tubes in the northern concrete walls to add to the thermal mass of the home and peg the temperature of that mass at a comfortable 70° F. A lot of energy is stored in the phase change between liquid and solid. Phase change waxes made from renewable crops like soy and coconut are designed with melting points at human comfort temperatures and can be used in a number of different applications in passive solar buildings.
7. A home controller interface represents the “brains” of the home. It connects directly to a whole-home custom controller (built by Heliocentric) in the mechanical room. This controller integrates and optimizes all the systems in the home to keep the home comfortable using the least-cost technology available. Sensors inside and outside the home continuously feed data about temperature, humidity, respiration, condition trending, etc. to the controller and the controller uses this data to adjust things like the ventilation rate, the automatic window openers, the distribution of the radiant floor loop loads, and so on. The homeowner can use this interface to adjust thermostat settings, to view current conditions within the home, to view a map of the system, to view historical trends within each component of the system, and to make adjustments to other set points and system functionality.
8. This home makes best use of every resource. The 10,000 gallons of on-site water storage required by the fire marshall serves double duty as a heat sink. Custom-designed and site-manufactured heat exchangers are installed in the storage tanks, connected to the solar thermal panels and controlled by the whole-home custom controller. In the summer, when an abundance of hot water is produced by the solar panels, the heat is prioritized to the stratified solar water tank in the mechanical room for showering, washing, etc. Next, the hot water is sent to the underground insulated storage tanks to transfer its heat to the stored water. These tanks can store 3+ months of home heating to be used in the winter months.
9. Heating and cooling are delivered to various areas of the home through radiant tubing in the floors. The radiant loops return to the mechanical room and the whole-home custom controller decides where adjustments need to be made in temperature and how to move the water using high-efficiency pumps from one location to another. Thus, the radiant loops allow the passive solar to take best advantage of the thermal massing and keep the home cool in summer and warm in winter with minimal external energy inputs.
10. The roof supports 260 square feet of solar thermal panels that produce on average 200,000 BTU energy per day. This hot water will be used for domestic hot water as well as for heating the home.
11. Sensors in the floor work in conjunction with the whole-home custom controller to identify trends in temperature differentials between various locations in the home. The controller operates high-efficiency pumps to redistribute the gained solar heat from “hot” zones to “cool” zones. Thus the home takes best advantage of its thermal massing and solar gain, keeping the whole building comfortable at a minimum energy output.
12. CO₂ sensors measure varying respiration levels in the home and communicate with the whole-home custom controller, which then adjusts the ventilation rate from the HRV. In this way, plenty of fresh air is available when the family has houseguests or a party.
13. Solar wells (custom-designed and site-installed plumbing tubing) are installed behind the metal siding on the south side of the home to preheat domestic hot water before sending it to the stratified tank, reducing the load on the solar thermal panels and the instant-on hot water heater.
14. The 210 gallon stratified solar tank is more functional than a typical hot water heater. It has a multitude of input options to draw hot water from numerous sources, like the solar wells in the south side of the house, the solar thermal panels on the roof, and the underground heat sinks behind the home.  It then “stratifies” the inputs from these various heat sources with hottest water at the top and coolest water at the bottom. This stratification allows the solar thermal panels to work more efficiently by transferring their heat to cooler water, and also means there is always domestic hot water available since the entire tank does not have to be heated at once or completely drained before heat can be added to the system.
15. The office tower in the center of the home, outfitted with automatic window controllers operated by the whole-home custom controller automatically opens the windows for nighttime flushing in the summer to keep the home cool and comfortable.
16. Serving triple-duty is a 5000-gallon underground cistern fed by a site-built well and a rainwater catchment system, connected to the radiant loops in the home and utilized for cooling and irrigation of the tree nursery. The whole-home custom controller monitors and adjusts the level of the tank using an ultrasonic sensor. It reduces the water level during the rainy season to allow for surge capacity, and increases the water level during the hot months to allow the custom-designed, site-manufactured radiant cooling loop to transfer the cool temperatures of the ground water into the home. No air conditioner needed to keep this home cool and comfortable all summer long.
17. A rainwater catchment system is installed to recover roof-top rainfall and direct it to a 5000-gallon underground cistern. The water is used for both summertime cooling and a low water-loss drip irrigation system for the tree nursery. 
18. At the end of winter, when the underground solar storage is depleted and the solar thermal panels are not quite keeping up with demand, a high efficiency instant-on hot water heater augments the passive solar system.
19. All toilets in the home are high efficiency dual flush toilets.
20. Heat exchangers at the shower drains recover the heat from the water.
21. High-efficiency lighting fixtures were used throughout the home, most of them LED. 
22. During the construction period, up to 95% of waste was recycled. The family intends to continue the trend and recycle their own waste.
23. The yard is landscaped with native and low-water use plants, fitting with the natural beauty of the environment and keeping irrigation needs to a minimum.
24. The walkway is a permeable durable concrete walk that allow rainwater to penetrate to the surrounding vegetation.
25. The driveway is made of a recycled crushed asphalt product that reduces the dust impact over a standard gravel drive and allows proper drainage, preventing erosion and run-off problems.
{Photo credit to Jake Kauppila}
{Photo credit to Jake Kauppila}

Now, to get back to our regularly scheduled building and our own soon-to-be net zero passive solar home...

bathroom floor

Typically, the bathroom floor is not a place that excites me. It's a place I skillfully ignore in order to put off cleaning as long as is reasonably possible.

But, I've never gotten a chance to build my own bathroom floor before.

Our main bathroom is divided into 2 sub-rooms. One houses the sinks and W.C. and one houses the shower and the Japanese-style soaking tub — the bathing room, if you will.

Papa Builder is always the thinker, the planner, the engineer, and the uncompromising designer. He didn't slack off when it came to the bathroom floor.

Every house we've ever lived in had the problem of water pooling under the emerging recently showered individual. The little rugs typically used to mop the mess up are not very attractive and get stinky a mildewy far too quickly. The solution? Let's turn the whole floor of the bathing room into a beautiful draining surface.

We start by cutting down the supporting floor beams at complicated angles to accommodate the drainage plane.

Then triangles were cut for each drainage plane (one under the shower and one for the whole bathroom) and assembled over the beams. They were caulked and nailed in place to keep the floor from shifting or squeaking.

Next, we got the drains placed and supported from underneath and put another layer of triangles in place to bring the drains up to the proper height underneath and make the floor a little stiffer.

Then the floor, whose beams had been compromised a little bit from cutting them down, was supported from the underside with 2x4 blocking.

We tested our drains and they definitely drain. Woo-hoo!

Coming up... Rubber waterproofed underlayment, a galvanized custom-made drain pan, and a slatted Lyptus wood floor over it all for beauty and drainability. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Several moons ago at the spring equinox/Easter, the Boy Builder received a couple of packets of seeds as a spring gift. At the time, we indulged in a wee moment of despair as we looked out the window at the feet and feet of snow still on the ground and wondered if we would ever learn to garden in this climate.

But, ever onward and upward, last weekend I helped Eden spiff up his lounge a bit and we rediscovered the set aside seed packets. We made an impromptu plan to build a little garden box, plant some arugula and see what happens.

Lucky for us, a dear friend came to visit who regularly builds the garden boxes for his own family's garden and the Boy Builder wasted not a moment employing him for the task.

Thank you so much, dear Markus, for your expertise and assistance!

Then, Boy Builder and I found a good spot for the box, leveled it off, filled it with compost imported from our previous residence, saturated the compost with water, and planted the seeds.

Here's to springtime hopes transplanted to August and the promise an arugula seed can hold.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


It's been a bit too long since I've written a post on the actual building happening around these parts.

One of the most exciting projects underway are the cantilevered stairs taking us from the main floor to the upper floor of the house.

For months now, we've been getting to the upper levels like this:

Those of us at the job site every day have become pretty accustomed to this method, but newcomers clearly get a little nervous heading up and down this way.

:: The first step of replacing that ladder with stairs was to order and pick up the steel. This was no small feat and for some inexplicable reason required 3 or 4 trips to the steel suppliers.

:: Then, the steel was fabricated on site

:: We ended up with finished result like this ...
... and by-product like this

:: The large and densely heavy 1/2 inch by 12 inch plates were then attached to the walls with large screws and the finished result was this gorgeous sort of modernist mountain skyline that my non-wide angle lens only barely captures. These plates will carry the cantilevered load of the stairs on the structure of the walls.

:: Next the welders arrived and attached the stair support to the plates.

:: The result was like this
... and like this

:: I proceeded to carefully measure and cut all the infill pieces of 1-1/8" plywood that serve as the "skin" for the stairs.

:: And the pieces were glued and screwed into place.

:: After a few minor issues were resolved ...

:: Excess glue was removed with sanders, chisels, and other tools.

:: And now we can move between the main floor and the upper floor on stairs!

Very, very exciting!!!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


We've been having a series of thunderstorms lately. The boy builder calls this the summer-spring season because it's been hot and we've had lots of rain.

Tuesday night we had some of the most unusual clouds I've ever seen. And nothing about this photographed is touched up. This was really the odd color of the sky.

And after those clouds had dissipated and the strange UFO landing light had normalized, the day finished with this sunset.

When we're working this hard, it's a treat to have such a beautiful place to do it.